The Catacombs of Gotham: Manhattan’s Catholic Cemetery
New York City’s Little Italy has an underground Christian catacomb.
In fact, it is Manhattan’s only Catholic cemetery.Believe it or not, there was an old St. Patrick’s Cathedral before there was a new St. Patrick’s Cathedral and, apparently, the one in New York City’s Little Italy has an underground Christian catacomb.
The basilica has opened its 200-year-old crypt to the public for the first time since the late 1800s, by offering a six-person family vault in the catacombs for the sum of $7 million. Needless to say, the supply is limited.
At one time, the basilica was the center of Irish New York and the great Nativist Riots. Historically, the parish has served the French, German, Irish, Italian, Chinese and Dominican communities. Faces and communities ebb and flow, but the Church remains, assisting new communities and individuals. Recently, the parish has become very young, upwardly mobile and professional, but the parish still reaches out to the great unchurched masses, just as it has for the past two centuries.
It’s interesting to note that most saints who have blessed New York City have, in one way or another, been associated with “Old St. Pat’s.” Many holy men and women have passed through its holy doors. Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Frances Cabrini, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin all passed through the doors of this great church. St. John Neumann was ordained here and worked as a missionary in New York City for many years before moving to Philadelphia. Servants of God Fathers Felix Varela and Stephen Eckert and Mother Mary Angeline Teresa McCrory all ministered in the neighborhood for many years.
The catacombs — the term the parish uses to refer to the crypts under the basilica — are the final resting places of many historically important Catholics.
In fact, for many years, two saints-in-the-making, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, the chief financier of the cathedral, and Father Isaac Heckler, founder of the Paulist Fathers, rested here until both were disinterred and reburied in the “new” St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Paul the Apostle (405 W. 59th St.), respectively. Interestingly, Toussaint, also a former slave, is the first layman to be buried in a space normally reserved for bishops of the Archdiocese of New York.
The cemetery adjacent to the basilica has 355 family plots. The catacombs have 35 family crypts and five clerical burial vaults. Due to a fire, extensive records were lost; however, many of the aforementioned plots and crypts have multiple individuals resting peacefully.
Buried here are, among others, John Connolly, the first bishop of New York; Congressman John Kelly, an important leader of New York City’s Tammany Hall; and General Thomas Eckert, who was an adviser to Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly, Eckert’s crypt is still lit with original Edison light bulbs.The Delmonico family, responsible for one of the city’s classiest and most exclusive restaurants, has 20 members buried in the basilica’s vaults.
Burials at St. Patrick’s began in the late 1700s. The most recent addition to the catacombs was the 2014 interment of Msgr. Nicola Marinacci, who died in September 2014 at age 103.
Frank Alfieri, director of the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral’s cemetery and columbaria — reserved space for urns of cremated remains — spoke with the Register.
“It’s an incredible space important for spiritual and historical reasons. Many New Yorkers don’t realize what is just below their feet,” Alfieri pointed out.
Msgr. Donald Sakano, pastor of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral since 2007, explained the extra benefit of buying the last remaining family crypt. “We are looking for a donation of $7 million; however, we’ll consider all reasonable offers. This includes the naming rights to the church’s magnificent 1868 Henry Erben pipe organ.”
The basilica’s organ is one of New York City’s historic gems. It’s the only extant three-manual Erben organ and is the only large, mid-19th century pipe organ left in America, intact, in its original acoustic space. The organ has logged more than 150,000 liturgies and thousands of hours of rehearsals and concerts in its 145-plus years.
Msgr. Sakano said the parish’s future plans for the historic catacombs include “individual niches for the interment of cremated remains.” (Editor’s Note: The Church’s Order of Christian Funerals’ appendix on cremation states: “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites,” 413).
“People are captivated when we talk about the catacombs,” said Msgr. Sakano. “They’re often unaware that underneath the nave of this historic church building are catacombs that have been a silent witness to the many struggles and accomplishments of prominent New York Catholics. It’s where bishops rest beside noteworthy New Yorkers who have played important roles in New York, American and Catholic history.”
writes from New York.